Faculty Column: Technology and human interaction, the next frontier of global leadership?

Courtesy: Thunderbird School of Global Management
Courtesy: Thunderbird School of Global Management

By Professor Denis Leclerc

From time to time, I find myself wondering if what I do as an educator really matches the needs of executives and students.   As the 21st century moves forward, more and more executives are finding themselves in the position of leading geographically and/or culturally diverse teams.  Their world seems to expand into a borderless environment while the world of the educator seems to be static for the most part and unchanged; a classroom in 2013 serves the same function and looks the same as a classroom in 1993 or 1973.

Several years ago, Professors Moran and Youngdhal originally asked this straightforward and simple question while working with one company: “What is your greatest personal challenge when it comes to leading or contributing to projects and initiatives.”  Because I found this question so intriguing in its implication, I decided to collect surveys from various industries.

With the help of two students, Fikre Gurja (12) and Sarah Roseen (13),  we analyzed over 1000 surveys that I collected.

Results from different industries and cultures indicate that executives have challenges in three distinct areas.  Half of the responses indicated that the most important personal challenge is team management.  While many of leaders would support their own organizational diversity strategic endeavor, most realize that team diversity alone is not sufficient in making and fostering highly productive teams.  In some of their responses, diversity is perceived as the cause of great challenges, ranging from too much cross cultural difference, to problems with feedback, conflict management and simple communication issues.

Identified as the second most important challenge (40% of the responses) is organizational hurdles; influencing upper management, managing stakeholders and understanding the scope of multiple projects.  Having no belief in projects was found to have a tremendous impact on how these leaders see themselves in their organizational hierarchy.

The final and rapidly growing area of concern for these executives is in the area of self -leadership.  I have seen a steady increase in responses describing challenges in time management, patience, task delegation and the inability to disconnect from technology.  When I speak with executives and students alike (millennials to boomers) technology drives how we lead and interact.  We are all now carrying an electronic leash that for better or worse impacts how productive we perceive we are and how we connect.

The first two challenges do not differ from what has already been published in many highly regarded academic journals, airport books, websites and Twitter accounts.  What surprises me is the last challenge, which in combination with the first two has vast implications for teams and organizations.   Industry leaders Daimler and Volkswagen have recently taken the drastic step of turning off their email system at night, allowing executives to stop, think and make better decisions.  This is something I find myself pondering: is it time for all of us to give technology a good night’s sleep?

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